In one sense, writing my story—growing up, realizing my sexuality, hiding it from the world (and, for many years, living in denial even to myself), and now considering the possibility of being more public about it—is a simple thing: I’m the one who lived it, and its most important details are clear and vivid to me. In another sense, the thought of writing my story overwhelms me: many of the details are fraught with painful emotions, and I fear that I may not be able to glue them all together into a cohesive narrative. But I believe this is necessary, so here goes nothing . . .
I grew up on a family-owned and -operated farm in a rural area. My parents were (and are) two people devoted to God, each other, my sister and me, and their farm. I love my parents and admire them as two of the hardest-working people I know. I never questioned whether they wanted what they thought was best for me or that they would protect and provide for me. But my growing up years weren’t easy. As good as my parents were, they were in many regards just “kids having kids.”
My mom was incredibly short-tempered and would explode over the smallest things. It often felt like she refused to listen to me. She was a disciplinarian and an overreactor—not a good combination. Often when I made her angry, she would pour on guilt to shame me for my infraction (real or imagined—it didn’t matter), which made me feel like she didn’t do things for me, but rather for herself, at me.
My dad was very distant. As a kid, I was shy, awkward, sensitive, and bookish—none of which were attributes he shared with me. Even back then, I felt like a giant disappointment to him. I watched with envy how easily my star-athlete sister bonded with him. (In contrast, my brief stint playing shirts vs. skins basketball in the fourth grade ended my athletic pursuits!) The two of them shared a world together, whereas he and I struggled to make simple conversation. He seemed content with the distance between us and made few efforts to bridge the divide.
For all their shortcomings, my parents did encourage what is the most important thing in my life: my faith in Jesus Christ. However, the small, country church we attended (every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, every Monday night for AWANA club, and most Wednesday nights for prayer meeting) proudly labeled itself as “Fundamental, Bible-believing, and Baptistic.” Political viewpoints were often preached from the pulpit, and I remember hearing about the “evils” of, among other things, psychology, tolerance, education, self-esteem, homosexuals, yoga, and Bill Clinton.
In the midst of all this, it was evident from a pretty early age that I was an anomaly. I was smart despite having uneducated parents. I was ambitious to experience the world despite never leaving the farm for more than a day. I had aspirations of my own when what was expected of me was to grow up to take over the family business. I was sensitive in a house of people who didn’t talk about their feelings. I liked reading and being indoors when I “should” have been attracted to more practical and active pursuits. I wanted to be open-minded and possess a broad worldview in the context of a community that was unbelievably insular and a church that was extremely intolerant. Oh, and I was gay in an environment in which every voice I heard told me that the only people who face homosexual temptation are evil sinners who choose to—and they are irredeemable unless they are, as I once heard on a Focus on the Family radio broadcast, “cured” of their homosexuality and become straight. I was a misfit and I was ashamed of nearly every part of who I was.
Through all of this, God gave me one consistent gift to keep me sane: music. I’d begun piano lessons when I was seven years old, and by the time I was twelve, I loved practicing for hours at a time. When I was thirteen, I was cast in the leading role of the high school musical theater production, and that hugely boosted my confidence as a musical performer. Throughout high school, I earned acceptance into district, regional, and all-state honor choirs as both a vocalist and a pianist. I continued to grow and excel as a musician; music became the one area of my life of which I wasn’t ashamed. When I made music, I felt in control and at home—in stark contrast to all other settings. None of this should have happened; given the environment I grew up in, I shouldn’t have had the talent or the drive to develop it that I did. But this was God’s doing, his way of telling me that he was there and he loved me after all, despite everything else.
Music was my ticket off the farm and into college. I remember telling my parents when I was in the eighth grade that I wanted to be a music teacher. Their reactions to that proclamation included telling me that
- I wasn’t good enough to pursue music professionally,
- music was not a viable way to make a living, and
- my “place” was not off chasing some far-fetched dream but rather on the farm carrying on their legacy.
Slowly, over the course of the next four-plus years, they came around and “allowed” me to apply to colleges. I applied to, auditioned at (driving myself to my own audition), and was accepted into three respected Christian colleges, and decided to enroll at one of them. (I believe so strongly in Christian higher education, by the way, but that too is a conversation for another time . . .)
My four years as an undergraduate student at that school changed my life. Prior to college, my whole world was a swath of land in the corner of my home state. I had never traveled farther than 300 miles from home. By the end of my first year of college, I had lived overseas for a semester and traveled independently through Europe. I was exposed to divergent thoughts and new experiences through my coursework and friends. My worldview broadened in amazing ways and the horizons of my life’s experiences exploded.
I also continued to excel musically. By my senior year, I held leadership positions in several music student service organizations, was a recognized face across campus, was sought after as a performer in multiple capacities, and had earned the award given to the outstanding senior music major by the faculty. I applied and was accepted to multiple master’s degree programs in conducting, most offering me generous teaching assistantships. But still I felt “less than”—no matter what I accomplished, I still hid a secret that I believed negated any good in my life.
I decided to earn my master’s degree at a Christian college, as well. And it was in the spring of the first year of that degree that the unthinkable happened: I came out for the first time (I will share the story of my first coming out experiences in a future post). This ignited a season of tremendous personal growth: I was in therapy every week, I was cultivating good relationships, and I felt a renewed commitment to God and the spiritual disciplines.
Whether my therapist intended to communicate it or not, my understanding of our work together was that it would “cure” me, i.e., make me straight. And I believed it was working. Over the course of several months, I felt my sexual attractions for men diminishing. I remember proclaiming to the girl I was dating at the time (who I’d come out to the day after we decided to start a romantic relationship) on a trip to visit her that summer that I could now be for her the man she deserved—one who found her arousing.
How naïve I was. How stupid I was! By the start of the fall semester of the second year of my master’s degree, the same-sex attractions I’d experienced since puberty began to return. Because the thought of being free from them had made me so unbelievably happy (or perhaps more accurately because the thought of failure was so horrifying), I denied that the “progress” I’d made had been a delusion. This kind of denial and its accompanying behaviors led, ultimately, to severe damage to several of my closest friendships and irreparable damage to a couple of relationships, including that with my girlfriend. I consider my whole experience with so-called “reparative therapy” to have been psychologically traumatic.
I graduated for the second time that spring and obtained employment as a music teacher at a public high school. I remained in that position for three years, and those were three years of sojourning in a social desert. There was only one other young, single teacher in my school, and she and I failed to “click” in the way that leads to deep friendship. I had wonderful students and great work to do, but knew that I would not make my career teaching in that school. So in my third year of teaching, I applied and was accepted to several doctoral programs in conducting across the nation. It was time to move on.
I moved to a new state and began a doctorate nearly three years ago. During my first year, I hid my sexuality from everyone. I was mostly in denial, still believing that if I only met the right woman I could marry her and have a “normal” life. I went on dates and flirted with girls and tried to mask that I really didn’t feel much attraction at all toward women. At Christmastime in 2012, I received a Kindle and decided to download and read a book I would never be caught owning a hardcopy of: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill. This excellent—no, life-changing—book percolated in my mind for months, and I came out to my first friend there in 2013. However, my coming out to her was motivated by the denial that still shackled me: I thought I was interested in her, and since she is a sincere believer, thought that my vulnerability in revealing my struggle might lead to a relationship between the two of us. (In case you’re wondering, it did not!)
A year later, in August 2014, I returned spiritually renewed from the Christian camp I teach at in the summers. Somehow, I stumbled upon John Piper’s sermon “Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters,” and was immediately convicted that I was called to lifelong celibacy. I sent my parents and sister an email explaining that decision and quietly went public with my decision never to marry to a few close friends, especially those most likely to encourage me to find a wife and “finally settle down.” The peace with this decision—and the presence of God’s Spirit—I felt was palpable. God blessed me with tremendous spiritual growth during the ensuing months.
This past fall through the present was and is an especially tumultuous time in my life story—coming out to multiple friends, rejecting romance offered to me, developing new friendships of great importance, and beginning therapy again. I will unpackage all of those things in future posts. For now, dear reader, I leave you with this prayer:
May the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:10–11